Eleven years ago tonight, my father passed away.
One sunny summer Sunday afternoon when I was eleven years old, my mother, my sisters, and I returned from my grandmother’s house in our aging Chrysler. Dad was waiting for us outside, standing beside a newer Chrysler – a Blue 1966 Newport, that he had bought a few months earlier. It was all packed for a road trip. Dad motioned to me, “Get anything else you need from the house — we’re going to Texas.”
I hadn’t known anything about this trip in advance. I was a bit confused as to why only Dad and I were going. But I was excited — I love road trips. We were only able to afford such long journeys once every several years, and usually employed them to visit family. Earlier that summer the whole family had already made a long trip from Virginia to Memphis, Tennessee for a family reunion. The only person we knew in Texas would be my Dad’s best friend Wally, who was stationed in San Angelo — way on the other side of Texas.
Unlike our older Chrysler, the newer one had air conditioning — which felt heavenly on the long southwestward journey. It also had a working radio complete with an FM dial, so we could listen to decent music the whole way. But my father had one more amenity to provide. At a gas station near our house, he bought us each a new pair of sunglasses. Now we were ready to ride off into the Texas sunset.
We didn’t get far on the first day — we only reached Statesville, NC, where we stayed in a Holiday Inn. This was another treat, as I had never stayed in such a nice hotel before. Most of our previous road trips involved the kind of single-story motels whose rotting carcasses still litter most US highways across the nation. Here I had a bed all to myself, instead of my usual cot or floor.
The second day, we made it all the way to Texarkana. I learned to distinguish the big rigs on the Interstate: Peterbilt, Kenworth, and Mack. I was amazed to see the double-bottom trailers, which weren’t allowed in our part of Virginia at that time.
We consumed the entire third day crossing Texas. We got lost in Dallas trying to change from Interstate 30 to 20 because all the exit signs were right on top of the exits, with no warning. I marveled at the buttes and mesas of west Texas, which inspired my subsequent artwork for years to come. We finally reached San Angelo about 1AM, after having a little trouble at a Chevron station on the way.
Back in those days, almost all gas stations were full service only. The attendant not only pumped your gas, but they also washed the windshield and lifted the hood to check the fluids. Our attendant walked up to Dad’s window and said, “Sir, you got a busted hose we’re gonna hafta fix for ya.”
Dad got out to examine it for himself. He knew a lot about auto parts, having worked in the industry for years. He had checked all the hoses before we left home — and he could tell right away that the hose in question had been slashed. But out in the middle of Nowhere, Texas he wasn’t going to make any accusations against the station employees who outnumbered him. So instead he replied, “No thanks” and drove off. Then he stopped at the next station down the road (not a Chevron, just to be sure he wasn’t benefiting the same owners) and had a new hose installed. He told me all about what had happened, with every third word being some new variation on an old vocabulary.
We spent several days in San Angelo. Dad showed me the house we had lived in when he was stationed there years before, now run down and overgrown. I learned how to skateboard using Wally’s stepson’s board. I went fishing in the Concho River with a neighbor boy about my age, whose younger sister developed a huge crush on me. And I took walks around the neighborhood, where I once met two very lovely girls who were a little older than I. As I lowered shades to greet them eye to eye, I overheard one of them whisper to the other, “he looks cool.” That comment boosted my confidence immensely. Combined with all the time spent palling around with my Pa, the trip represented a turning point for me in terms of self-esteem.
I don’t know why my father visited Wally. There was some talk about a possible job opportunity for him, but nothing ever came of it. Wally became an officer while we were there, but my Dad didn’t attend the ceremony — he watched Wally’s stepchildren so Wally’s wife could go. Whatever the reason, it was one of the most magical weeks in my life.
Eleven years after I earned the right to vote, and eleven years before I reached age 40, my oldest son and I made a road trip: from Pensacola, Florida to Annapolis, Maryland for my youngest sister’s wedding. My son, who was five, was to be the ring bearer. I had just purchased a brand new Chrysler: a red 1989 LeBaron convertible. It was Spring, and we kept the top down most of the trip. But the first thing we did was to stop and buy two new pairs of sunglasses.